Sibling Competition

My dad turned seventy a few years back. The planning of his party brought up all the old resentments of we, his five children, competing for his favor. It was like opening the door to our attic storage closet. Old tennis racquets, down coats, boogie boards, and boxes of photos all spill out onto the floor.

My oldest, and most important sister, Christy, took charge and planned the event. The next youngest and oft forgotten sister, Sarah, was furious about not being included. My third sister, Elaine, fought back, slyly convincing my mother to change Christy's plans. Christy screamed of betrayal, stabbed in the back once more by her younger siblings. Sarah and Elaine complained bitterly of Christy's arrogance. My brother and I only found out about the party a week before, too late to make plans to attend.

When the dust had settled my Mother made one request. "The only thing I want for my seventieth birthday," she said, "is for my children to be able to get along." I wondered what it takes to raise a such a family. Was there something missing in our upbringing that accounts for why we still bicker with each other in our forties?

The whole brouhaha came back to me when I got an email from Sarah addressed to each member of the family, asking everyone to respond to a number of questions about how we might together plan my parents 50th wedding anniversary. Each was to have an equal say before any decisions were made. It seemed like such a rational way to gather information and include everyone in the decision making process. I've been organizing groups of people in both my personal and professional life with this type of democratic-cooperative style for many years. Still, I had never considered using such a process in my family. I don't know why.

Perhaps I gave up long ago. Christy was eight years older than me. Her myriad concerns about her boyfriends and her dawning political awareness would almost always dominate the dinner conversation. "Joe Fuller's Dad wants Joe to get drafted. Can you believe that?!" I had no hope of debating a topic with her. She courted my parent's approval, but had only a passing interest in the rest of us. We were too easy a match. I learned not to try to compete. Sometimes I thought of something funny I could say if I could find a pause to say it in. Mostly, I just listened. No one listened to me until bedtime, when I had a few moments alone with Mom.

Without conscious structure, our family had a distinctly Darwinian feel. The loudest and pushiest got all the attention. In this setting Christy never learned that the rest of us had ideas just as interesting as hers. She wondered why we didn't just speak up if we had something to say. She never intended to prevent any of us from getting our chance to shine. So she never understood why we resented her.

My parents didn't seem to know that they could have structured things differently. There is a simple rule that would have changed everything. If there are seven people at dinner, then each of us should take only one seventh of the group's attention. If my parents had structured the way we shared attention, then the quieter among us would not have to compete with the loudest. We might have found out that Sarah had been using drugs most of high school. We might have found out that my brother needed help with his homework before he almost flunked sixth grade.

Christy garnered much more of my parents' attention than the rest of us. But it didn't made her any happier. The resentment she felt from her brothers and sisters only made her more desperate for parental approval. The more she struggled to get it, the more resentful the rest of us got. No one wins when children are having to compete for attention.

It doesn't matter whether each child has the charisma to capture the family spotlight. We each have an equal need to be heard and seen. One child might be choosing what college to attend. Another may be waiting to hear if she got a part in the class play. The youngest may be just figuring out how to make a three word sentence. A good look around the dinner table reveals that each have a genius with which they make their way through life.

© 2008, Tim Hartnett

Other Father Issues, Books

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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